Chapter 14: The Federal Judicial System: Applying the Law
Chapter 14: The Federal Judicial System: Applying the Law 89075
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Chapter 14 THE FEDERAL jUDICIAL SYSTEM APPLYING THE LAW Introduction 0 First the judiciary is an important policymaking body Some of its rulings are as consequential as a law of Congress or an executive order of the President 0 Second the judiciary has considerable discretion in its rulings Third the judiciary is a political as well as legal institution The judiciary is an independent branch of the US government but unlike the other two branches its top of cials are not elected by the people The judiciary is not a democratic institution and its role is different from and in some ways more controversial than the roles of the executive and legislative branches The Federal judicial System The constitution establishes the judiciary as a separate and independent branch of the federal government The Constitution provides for the Supreme Court of the United States but gives Congress the power to determine the number and types of lower federal courts All federal judges are nominated and appointed to of ce by the president subject to con rmation by majority vote in the Senate Constitution places no age residency or citizenship requirements on the of ce of federal judge Nor does the Constitution require judges to have legal training though by tradition they do Federal judges serve until they die or retire can be removed through impeachment or conviction Alexander Hamilton believed that the best way to ensure that judicial decisions meet this standard Hamilton claimed is to grant life tenure to federal judges so that they are free of all allegiances except to the rule of law I The Supreme Court of the United States The Supreme Court of the United States is the nation39s highest court It has nine members the chiefjustice and eight associate justices The chiefjustice presides over the Court but has the same voting power as each of the other justices Article III of the Constitution grant the Supreme Court both original and appellate jurisdiction A court39s jurisdiction is its authority to hear cases of a particular type Original jurisdiction is the authority to be the rst court to hear a case The Supreme Courts original jurisdiction includes legal dispute involving foreign diplomats and cases in which the opposing parties are state governments The Supreme Court does its most important work as an appellate court Appellate jurisdiction is the authority to review cases that have already been heard in lower courts and are appealed to a higher court by the losing party These higher courts are called appeals courts or appellate courts Appellate courts do not retry cases rather they determine whether a trial court in hearing a case has acted in accord with applicable law The Supreme Court39s appellate jurisdiction extends to cases arising under the Constitution federal law and regulations and treaties The Court also hears appeals involving legal controversies that cross state or national boundaries Article III of the Constitution gives Congress the power to create quotexceptionsquot to the Supreme Court39s appellate jurisdiction whereas its original jurisdiction is unalterable by Congress ll Selecting and Deciding Cases The Supreme Court39s power is most apparent when it declares another institution s action to be unconstitutional This power called judicial review was rst asserted by the Supreme Court in Marbury vs Madison The Supreme Courts primary responsibility is to establish legal precedents that will guide the decisions of lower courts A precedent is a judicial decision that serves as a rule for settling subsequent cases of a similar nature Lower courts are expected to follow precedent that is to resolve cases in ways consistent with upper court rulings Nearly all cases that reach the Supreme Court do so after the losing party in a lower court asks the court to hear its case If at least four of the justices agree to do so the Court issues a writ of certiorari which is a request to the lower court to submit to the Supreme Court a record of the case The Supreme Court is most likely to grant certiorari when the US government through the solicitor general requests it When the government loses a case in a lower court the solicitor general decides whether to appeal it Such cases often make up half or more of the cases the Supreme Courts hears in a term The Court39s job is not to correct the errors of other courts but to resolve substantial legal issues Each side also provides the Court a written brief which contains its full argument The oral session is followed by the judicial conference which is attended only by the nine justices and in which they discuss and vote on the case lll lssuing Decisions and Opinions After a case has been decided Court issues its ruling which consists of a decision and one or more opinions The decision indicates which party the Court supports and by how large a margin The most important part of the ruling however is the opinion which explains the legal basis for the decision When a majority of the justices agree on the legal basis of a decision the result is a majority opinion In some cases there is no majority opinion because although a majority of the justices agree on the decision they disagree on the legal basis for it The result in such cases is a plurality opinion which presents the view held by most of the justices who vote with the winning side Another type of opinion is a concurring opinion a separate view written by a justice who votes with the majority but disagrees with its reasoning The nal type is a dissenting opinion in it a justice orjustices on the losing side explains the reasons for disagreeing with the majority position When part of the majority the chiefjustice decides which justice will write the majority opinion Otherwise the senior justice in the majority picks the author The justice who writes the Court39s majority opinion has the responsibility to express accurately the majority39s reasoning The vote on a case is not considered nal until the opinion is written and agreed upon so give and take can occur during the writing stage IV Other Federal Courts US District Courts The lowest federal courts are the district courts There are 94 federal district courts altogether at least one in every state and as many as four in some states Each district includes several judges who number roughly seven hundred in all The federal district courts are the chief trial courts of the federal system Virtually all criminal and civil cases arising under federal law are argued rst in the district courts They are the only courts in the federal system where the two sides resent their case to a jury for a verdict Cases at this level are usually presided over by a single judge US Courts of Appeals Cases appealed from district courts go to federal courts of appeals which are the second level of the federal court system Courts of appeals do not use juries Ordinarily no new evidence is submitted in an appealed case rather appellate courts base their decision on a review of the lower court39s records Appellate judges act as supervisors in the legal system reviewing trial court decisions and correcting what they consider to be legal errors Facts found by district courts are ordinarily presumed to be correct The United States has thirteen courts of appeals Eleven of them have jurisdiction over a quotcircuitquot made up of the district courts in anywhere from three to nine states Special US Courts US Claims Court hears cases in which the US government is being sued for damages US Court of International Trade handles cases involving appeals of US Court of International Trade which hands cases involving appeals of US Customs Of ce rulings and the US Courts of Military Appeals which hears appeals of military court martial V The State Courts Like the federal courts state court systems have trial courts at the bottom level and appellate courts at the top Each state decides for itself the structure of its courts and the method of electing judges Issues traditionally within the jurisdiction of the states can become federal issues through the rulings of federal courts Federal Court Appoin tees Appointments to the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts are controlled by the President who selects the nominees and the senate which af rms or rejects them Federal judges bring their political views with them to the courtroom and have opportunities to promote their political beliefs through the cases they decide I Supreme Court Nominees A Supreme Court appointment is a signi cant opportunity for a president Most justices retain their position for many years enabling presidents to in uence judicial policy through their appointments long after they have left of ce Presidents usually appoint jurists who have a compatible political philosophy Every nominee is scrutinized closely by the legal community interested groups and the media must undergo and extensive background check by the FBI and then must gain the approval of a Senate majority Within the Senate the key body is the judiciary Committee whose members have responsibility for conducting hearings on judicial nominees and recommending their con rmation or rejection by the full Senate Nearly 20 percent of presidential nominees to the Supreme Court have been rejected by the Senate on grounds ofjudicial quali cation political views personal ethics or partisanship ll Lower Court Nominees The President typically delegates to the deputy attorney general the task of identifying potential nominees for lower court judgeships a process that includes seeking recommendations from US senators of the president39s party and sometimes House members as well Senatorial courtesy a tradition that dates back to the 184039s holds that a senator from the state in which a vacancy has arisen should be consulted the senator is of the same party as the president If not consulted the senator can request that con rmation be denied Other senators usually grant the request as a quotcourtesyquot to their colleague Presidents typically select members of their own party for lower court judgeships More than 90 percent of recent district appeals court nominees have been members of the president39s political party Ill Personal Background ofJudicial Appointees In recent years increasing numbers of federal justices and judges have had prior judicial experience on the assumption that such individuals are best quali ed for appointment to the federal bench Elective of ce particularly a seat in the US senate was once a common route to the Supreme Court but recent appointees with the exception of Elena Kagan who was solicitor general have come from the appellate courts White males are overrepresented on the federal bench just as they dominate in Congress and at the top levels of the executive branch However the number r women and minority group members appointed to the federal judgeships has increased signi cantly in recent decades The Nature 0fudicia Decision Making Unlike the president or members of Congress federal judges make their decisions within the context of a legal system Yet they are also political of cials they constitute one of three coequal branches of the national government As a result their decisions though rooted in law also have a political component I Legal In uences on Judicial Decisions Article III of the Constitution bars a federal c09urt from issuing a decision except in response to a case presented to it This restriction is a substantial one For one thing it limits judges to issues that arise from actual legal disputes The facts of a particular case also limit judicial action The facts of a case are the relevant circumstances of a legal dispute or offense judicial decisions are also restricted in their breadth Technically a court ruling is binding only on the parties involved Its broader impact depends on the willingness of others to accept it The major constraint on the courts is the law itself Although a president or Congress can make almost any decision that is politically acceptable the judiciary must work within the con nes of the law The judiciary works within the context of three main sources of law the Constitution legislative statues and legal precedents The Constitution of the United States is the nation39s highest law and judges and justices are sworn to uphold it When a case raises a constitutional issue a court has the duty to apply the Constitution to it The large majority of cases that arise in courts involve issues of statutory and administrative law rather than constitutional law Statutory Law is legislative statute law Administrative law is based on a statutory law but is set by government agencies rather than by legislatures Administrative law consists of the rules regulations and judgments that agencies make in the process of implementing and enforcing statutory and administrative laws as well as by treaties and judges must work within the con nes of these laws Precedent holds that principles of law once established should be applied in subsequent similar cases ll Political in uences on Judicial Decisions Adherence to the law in judging of cases is what gives substance to the claim that the United States is governed by the quotrule of lawquot lfjudges were to ignore or downplay their obligation to uphold the law the public39s respect for the law and willingness to comply with it would diminish accordingly Nevertheless the law is not always a precise guide to judicial decisions with the result that judges often have some leeway in their rulings Political in uences affect how judges decide cases in which they have leeway These in uences come from both inside and outside the judicial system Inside the Court ludges Political Beliefs Court rulings are not simply an extension of the laws They are also in uenced by the political beliefs of the men and women who sit on the federal bench Outside the Court The Public Groups and Elected Of cials The courts can and do make unpopular decisions In the long run howeverjudicial decisions must be seen as fair if they are to be obeyed In other words the judiciary cannot routinely ignore the expectations of the general public interest groups and elected officials ludicia Power and Democratic Government Federal judges are unelected officials with lifetime appointments which places them beyond the reach of the voters Because the United States has a constitutional system that places limits on the power of the majority the judiciary has a legitimate role in the system Yet court decisions re ect in part the personal political beliefs of the judges A basis question is how farjudges should go in substituting their judgment for those of elected officials This power is most dramatically evident when courts declare laws enacted by congress to be unconstitutional How far should judges go in asserting their interpretations of the law as opposed to those put into effect by the people39s elected representatives What is the proper role of an unelected judiciary in a system rooted in the principle of majority rule There are competing schools of thought on this issue none of which is de nitive The Constitution is silent on the question of how it should be interpreted which has left the judiciary s proper role open to dispute Nevertheless a brief review of the major competing theories is instructive I Originalism Theory versus Living Constitution Theory Originalism Theory a prominent philosophy of conservatives holds that the Constitution should be interpreted the way that a reasonable person would have interpreted it at the time it was written Originalists emphasize the wording of the law arguing that the words of the framers are the only reliable indicator of how the law should be interpreted An opposing theory embraced more often by liberals holds that the constitution is a living document that should be interpreted in light of changing circumstances Proponents of the living constitution theory claim that the framers through the use of broad language and basic principles intended the Constitution to be an adaptable instrument ll Judicial Restraint versus Judicial Activism The doctrine ofjudicial restraint holds that judges should generally defer to precedent and to decision made by legislatures The restraint doctrine holds that in nearly every instance policy issues would be decided by elected lawmakers and not by appointed judges The role of the judge is to apply the law rather than determine it In contrast the doctrine ofjudicial activism holds that judges should actively interpret the Constitution statutes and precedents in light of fundamental principles and should intervene when elected representatives fail to act in in accord with these principles Although advocates ofjudicial activism acknowledge the importance of majority rule they claim that the courts should not blindly defer to the decisions of elected officials when core principles such as liberty equality and self government are threatened Ill What is the Judiciary39s proper Role Like the debate between originalism and living Constitution theorists the debate advocates ofjudicial restraint and activism is a normative one There is no conclusive way of settling the issue because the Constitution does not specify the method by which judges should arrive at their decision